The first thing I notice about the Bompas & Parr studio is the human skull on the conference table. As I await my hosts, two culinary entertainers who’ve made a name for themselves in London with their wacky flavor-based experiments, I take the skull in my hands to determine whether it’s real. It is. A loose tooth falls out into my palm. I panic and put the skull back on the table.
A few minutes later, Sam Bompas whirls into the room. He’s a svelte 32-year-old with a tall puff of blond hair, a playful smile, and a rumbling deep voice. He’s wearing a purple suit over a shirt covered in pineapples, which is actually modest compared to his counterpart’s getup: 33-year-old Harry Parr is sporting a bright long-sleeved shirt covered in McDonald’s characters, including Ronald and Grimace. He says his wife made it for him.
I ask about the skull. “Who did it belong to? I dunno,” Bompas admits before taking the thought a step further. “I’m a bit worried it’s quite a young skull. My other skull is a cup, a drinking cup. It’s really fancy. That’s what I’d like my own skull to be as well. And if I could come back and haunt someone that’d be pretty cool. But I don’t think that would happen because ghosts aren’t real. Which was proven by Houdini.” He pauses for a moment to look at me quizzically with squinted eyes. “Do you think conclusively?”
Was he asking me if I believed in ghosts? Upon realizing my confusion, he laughs. “Sorry, this is what happens when you schedule 4 o’clock meetings. Today at the office we’ve already talked about cryptography, how to make plants more interactive, and controlling the weather.”
For Bompas & Parr, such curious conversations are just part of the job. The eccentric duo have been dabbling in the weird and mysterious since 2007, when they first arrived on London’s culinary scene hawking colorful, architecturally impressive jelly molds, as the British call them. They built a jelly replica of Buckingham Palace, neon jellies, flaming jellies, even glow-in-the-dark jellies, all to much fanfare and fascination. Their operation has since blossomed into a studio fully dedicated to transforming food and drink from sustenance into multi-sensory spectacle using a mixture of theater, design, architecture, and weird science.
For example, a few years ago, they commissioned a giant bespoke church organ that, when played, alters the way whiskey tastes on the tongue. They once concocted fireworks that showered onlookers with edible banana-flavored confetti, peach-flavored snow, and a strong scent of strawberries. They’ve even created chocolate waterfalls. It’s no wonder they have been referred to as “culinary Willy Wonkas” in the British media.
“Really, we’re both interested in giving people a good time,” Bompas says. “That’s it. That’s the ultimate thing.” But it’s also a thriving business, and the two have made successful careers out of playing with their food.
While many of their installations have some element of science to them, neither of the men have strong science backgrounds, or food backgrounds for that matter. Bompas studied geography; Parr is an architect. But they’re fabulous party planners with an eye for color and, if the skull on the table is any indication, a flair for the occult. And more than anything, they’re incredibly curious and passionate about how we experience culinary art.
“Food, on a very basic level, is thematic to human existence,” Bompas says. “So when we do something, it can be absolutely relevant to everyone.”
Scientists are eager to collaborate with them, and do so regularly. “We work with microbiologists and explosive chemists,” Bompas says. “It just depends on what the project is.” Brands are also eager to get in on the action. The studio has worked with Mercedes, Heinz, and Intel, among other big names. They set up a tasting room for Guinness. Last year they catered a futuristic lunch for Nike called “Feasting on Stars” for which they cooked with plasma, “the fifth state of matter and the energy that stars are made of.” Scientists rigged a special kind of microwave to cultivate the space stuff in the restaurant setting.
Sometimes their work veers into studies on human behavior. For example, right now they’re running an installation called Alcoholic Architecture, for which they transformed a basement beneath an ancient monastery into a pop-up bar featuring a room full of vaporized gin and tonic–a “breathable cocktail.” Aside from the novelty of getting people drunk on a cloud of inhaleable booze (this journalist can confirm that, indeed, it does work), the experience is meant to help break down boundaries between different groups and encourage interaction between strangers. Visitors have to don ponchos to keep their clothes from being soaked in gin, but also to anonymize themselves. “There’s a sense of ritual in dressing up, and it means that everyone feels part of a whole,” Bompas says.
Their process for vaporizing gin and tonic was meticulous, and took them five years to really master, but has paid off hugely: 40,000 people have paid the roughly $17 cover charge to experience Alcoholic Architecture since last summer. The pop-up was supposed to close in January, but has extended through July and may stay longer. Bompas tells me they’re currently scouting international sites.
Clearly, there’s a hunger for this work, and now, almost 10 years into their careers as entertainers, the two are trying to use their studio’s name and creative muscle on something much bigger than parties and booze clouds. They want to open a museum. “This is something we’ve been interested in for years and years,” Bompas says, his eyes widening with enthusiasm.
The British Museum of Food would be the U.K.’s first-ever institution dedicated entirely to the history, evolution, science, sociology, and art of food. The website says it will “seek to change peoples’ lives by helping them consider what they eat, and to spread knowledge around nutrition and health, and to recognize its role in culture.” Bompas & Parr envision it becoming a cultural institution, alongside the likes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the Design Museum. They want it to be platform for experimentation, but also an institution that can advise policymakers on food-related decisions. “All of this is a vehicle to move our practice beyond effectively doing banging parties for people to actually getting into education and policy,” Bompas explains.
But they have to open it first. They set up a temporary proof-of-concept museum last year and saw positive feedback. Now, they’re hunting for a more permanent location while working on some ongoing projects, like the British Menu Archive, where they’re collecting thousands of menus from British history and translating them into data to see how food trends evolve and change. They’re also analyzing data from the pop-up museum’s Choco-Phonica project, in which visitors listened to different sounds while eating chocolate and recorded what they tasted. The data will be used to study the impact of sound on flavor.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff to do on this planet,” Bompas concludes. “I’m really fascinated by how much scope there still is for innovation within this medium. To me, that’s really encouraging.”